Gianni Infantino, less than three months into the job as the man chosen to lead FIFA into a new era of respectability, turned to his fawning converts and declared: “I can officially inform you here, the crisis is over.”
Elated at the welcome he received at his first congress since getting his feet under the table, Sepp Blatter’s initially reluctant successor milked the response to his somewhat premature proclamation of a brave new world, looking every inch the confident, potent figurehead in stark contrast to the low-key approach he used to take, in public at least, during seven years as UEFA’s number two.
Yet if Infantino hoped to fly out of Mexico with his reputation as the trusted saviour of FIFA enhanced, he achieved the exact opposite following a public relations disaster that raised serious questions about his ego-driven motives and the scope of his quest for authority.
However he tries to dress it up as a positive move to enhance transparency, the 11th hour regulatory change put before Congress empowering FIFA’s new-look Council to appoint and dismiss members of the judicial bodies (the most important one of which, remember, banned Blatter and Michel Platini) was a sly, clandestine manoeuvre that threatened to wipe away their independence and autonomy and led to the resignation of FIFA’s most prominent financial watchdog, audit and compliance chief Domenico Scala.
No sooner had Scala stepped down, accusing FIFA of “smuggling” the highly contentious proposal on to the agenda allowing no time for it to be debated and warning that future investigations could now be hindered with the threat of dismissal hanging over the heads of ethics officials, than Fifa went into damage limitation mode.
A statement insisted that Infantino had no intention of seizing control of FIFA’s ethics bodies and made the point that no dismissals could take place without a request from the relevant independent judicial bodies themselves. Yet that was not mentioned in the original wording put to Congress. Why was that?
Infantino may dismiss claims that giving FIFA’s new-look Council the power to hire and fire was an act of revenge against Scala. But Insideworldfootball understands that in a briefing with Council members a couple of days before Congress, Infantino stated he was not willing to accept the annual salary (reportedly $2m) being offered by FIFA’s compensation committee – headed at the time by Scala – and was determined to stand his ground to achieve parity with Blatter who is reported to have earned at least half as much again.
It has even been rumoured that Infantino at one point allegedly threatened to sue Scala. When that didn’t materialise, insiders have claimed, there was a cynical move to try and pay Scala off just before Congress started which failed when he refused to go quietly.
While neither of these scenarios can be independently verified, Infantino must have known, had he read reports at the time of the presidential election, that he stood to be paid less than Blatter as part of the reform measures in an effort to reduce FIFA’s bloated wage structure. Yet that didn’t stop him running for the top job.
Any notion that Scala had no right to set Infantino’s salary can be instantly disproved. According to FIFA’s own governance regulations, the compensation sub-committee, specifically set up by audit and compliance, should “determine the compensation of the president, the vice-presidents and members of the Council, and Secretary-General” and should “approve the contract of the president.”
There you have it. In black and white.
Why Congress approved the “hire and fire” recommendation with only one dissenting member is, given its implications, hard to fathom. Maybe, with it thrust upon them without prior notice, they had no time to digest its wording before voting. Or maybe there is an alternative reason: that none of the federations wanted to jeopardise getting their hands on annual development grants of $1.25m promised by Infantino to each and every one of them.
If the anti-independence move was a massive own goal, Infantino’s unilateral choice of his new general-secretary came a close second. FIFA boasted of the “great strides” undertaken in appointing a female. That is indisputable but whatever happened to the open recruitment process we were led to believe would take place before Jerome Valcke’s replacement could be appointed? It may not have been against the rules for Infantino to propose his preferred choice to the detriment of other interested candidates (if there were any) but it certainly went against the principle of best practise at the most sensitive time in FIFA’s history.
Shame on FIFA’s new-look Council (which at present comprises the same figures as the old executive committee) for not at least raising that point before giving Infantino carte blanche to announce Senegalese United Nations official Fatma Samoura as his number two. After all, she has no experience of working in football or sports marketing, however strong her diplomatic skills and despite Infantino’s assurance that she is used to “managing big organizations, big budgets, human resources, finance.”
In most companies, the CEO would at least possess a modicum of industry experience and as industries go, FIFA is pretty huge. It beggars belief that no members of the Council raised objections, not to the person perhaps but certainly to the process. Hardly an endorsement, is it, of FIFA’s supposed efforts to become more inclusive and less autocratic? The only conclusion that can be drawn is that Infantino will largely control the commercial side of the business.
“Nobody can change the past but I can shape the future,” he assured delegates in Mexico. “Fifa is back on track.” Really? It doesn’t look that way after what is being construed by many as a complete disregard for the core of FIFA’s reform programme: protecting the anti-corruption bodies that brought down a string of high-profile wrongdoers.
In one fell swoop, after all the laudably painstaking work that has gone on behind the scenes in recent months, Infantino’s new regime has not only seriously damaged the entire spirit of the reform process but wrecked any hope of changing the public perception of FIFA as untrustworthy — or of raising the esteem in which its key decision-making officials are held.
Plus ca change, as the phrase goes, plus c’est la meme chose.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.